1708610080 The limit of shame

The limit of shame

“There were never any limits for us. It’s being forced upon us!”

Craig Blacksmith of the Dakota Plains Wahpeton Oyate First Nation is categorical. The elder refuses to see a border drawn that separates the American state of North Dakota from the Canadian province of Manitoba. Instead, he sees the continuum of his ancestral territory.

“My people, part of the great Sioux nation, are divided into several communities scattered here and there, according to a geographical boundary drawn one day by two former colonial powers,” he said in an interview.

The elder and knowledge keeper says, however, that there is no difference in identity, culture or language between him and his fellow indigenous people who live and reside on the other side. © the line.

We are one and the same people, but forced displacement, genocidal policies and attempts to divide and weaken us have left us seriously alienated from each other today.

He mentions, among others, his brothers and sisters from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and Standing Rock Sioux First Nations, whose tribal reservations are located in the two Dakota states, several hundred kilometers from the Canadian border.

Maintaining constant contact with our loved ones remains difficult and painful as the United States, and especially Canada, have created physical and mental barriers to prevent our people from coming together and growing together.

The United States and Canada have existed for a few centuries, while our presence in the Americas may date back thousands of years. This imposed limit is a disgrace to Aboriginal people.

Between the United States and Canada, the territories of more than thirty municipalities are literally divided in two. Let us mention, among others, the members of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), the Ottawa, the Blackfeet, the Salish and several First Nations in western Washington state and Alaska.

The face of a man with glasses.

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Craig Blacksmith is a member of the Dakota Plains Wahpeton Oyate First Nation in southern Manitoba.

Photo: Craig Blacksmith

The elder cites as an example the many difficulties that so-called transnational First Nations face in preserving their cultures, their economies, their governments and their family relationships.

Customs officials often search us as if we were smugglers, he complains. Our sacred items that we bring to our shared ceremonies, such as pipes, traditional medicines or headdresses, are subject to precautionary checks like ordinary merchandise.

However, there is a treaty signed in 1794 between the United States and the British Crown that guarantees freedom of movement for Aboriginal people, including their goods: the Jay Treaty. Indigenous peoples of Canada therefore have the right, whether crossing borders or not, to freely enter the United States to work, study, retire, invest or emigrate.

The Canada-U.S. border has always been a complicated element for Aboriginal people, who never had problems moving across large areas before the arrival of Europeans, explains Paul McKenzie-Jones, a professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta .

What is the Jay Contract?

The Jay Treaty, also known as the Treaty of London, is an international agreement between the United States and Great Britain signed on November 19, 1794. The text aims to resolve a number of commercial disputes and territorial disputes that arose after the American treaty and the War of Independence despite the Peace of Paris of 1783.

Article III of the treaty states that the two signatory powers will allow First Nations people to live on both sides of the newly established border, to cross it freely and not to be subject to customs duties or taxes on their own goods during the crossing.

An old map of North America.

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Craig Blacksmith identifies the ancestral territory of the Dakota/Sioux with a red line on a historical map from 1857.

Photo: UK Parliament Select Committee Hearings

The Lethbridge University professor and expert on border issues recalls that Canada never ratified the Jay Treaty, which he said was outdated since the end of the War of 1812. Therein lies the crux of the problem and probably also the lack of reciprocity, he assures. Ottawa still considers Native Americans in the United States to be foreigners.

Therefore, natives from the United States who wish to live in Canada must follow the same administrative rules as all immigrants, and visitors cannot cross the border without an American passport.

He cites several cases that regularly made headlines. In 2018, two young American athletes from the Haida First Nation were arrested by Canadian police while attempting to participate in an organized basketball tournament on the indigenous community's territory.

Crossing the border is incredibly difficult and often associated with fear and targeted racism.

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A warning sign at the border between the United States and Canada.

Photo: AFP / Don Emmert

Moving to the USA: an obstacle course

Kale Bonham from the Swan Lake First Nation in Manitoba decided to take the plunge and settle in Los Angeles, California under the Jay Treaty. Although she managed to obtain a green card – Canada's equivalent of permanent residency – she describes the process as stressful.

When I arrived at the Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, none of the staff there had heard of a residency application under the Jay Treaty, she said in an interview.

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Kale Bonham is a member of the Swan Lake First Nation in Manitoba. She currently lives in Los Angeles as a full-time tattoo artist.

Photo: Kale Bonham

She states that there are no official guidelines, which has forced her to spend a lot of time and effort to understand a long and arduous administrative process. We are constantly in the fog, moving forward without knowing whether what we are doing will ultimately be successful.

The fact is that the American authorities require First Nations people wishing to settle in the United States to provide a series of careful documents proving that they are indigenous people. In addition to their status card, the applicant must provide a detailed birth certificate and a multi-generational ancestry certificate issued only by Indigenous Services Canada.

I also had to prove that I had at least 50% Indigenous blood, but the problem is that this United States-specific affiliation system called “blood quantum” doesn't exist in Canada, where Indian status predominates.

With the help of her community and loved ones, Kale Bonham still managed to overcome institutional barriers by providing all the necessary documentation. However, she laments the lack of information, which does not promote Aboriginal mobility.

It's not always easy living in Manitoba when you're from a First Nation. The social and economic difficulties are numerous. The Jay Treaty is a right and also an opportunity for us to find new opportunities elsewhere.

Two flags flutter in the wind.

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Every year, the Ambassador Bridge is the site of a demonstration by indigenous peoples demanding freedom of movement between Canada and the United States as provided for in the Jay Treaty. (Archive photo).

Photo: AFP / Jeff Kowalsky

Pressure on the Canadian government

Whether in the United States or Canada, indigenous peoples confronted with border rules and restrictions have been demanding respect for their rights for years. These rights are not limited to the ability to travel freely, but are at the heart of the principle of self-determination.

“Our territory doesn’t end at the border,” says Karen Bell, chief of the Garden River First Nation in Ontario, by phone. We never forget that our destiny extends beyond the walls of our reservation.

To make the voices of her Ojibwe community, which borders the state of Indiana, heard, she participates in Crossing the Border, an annual march organized for decades by the Indian Defense League of America on the Ambassador Bridge and Bringing together First Nations from Canada and the United States.

“It is a humbling experience to constantly have to cross the border where foreign laws and policies apply that have harmful consequences for our identity and our origins,” adds the chef, who is urging Ottawa to adopt the Jay Treaty once and for all to apply.

A track on the ground marks the Canada-American border.

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Many communities lie on the border between Canada and the United States. (Archive photo).

Photo: AFP / Eric Thomas

In an email exchange, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says it wants to make it easier for Indigenous people to cross the border without ratifying the treaty. The ministry is instead considering changes to immigration law to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees self-determination.

The Government of Canada recognizes the complex border crossing and migration challenges faced by Indigenous peoples separated by Canada's international borders, the ministry said.

Therefore, IRCC advocates for cross-border mobility reform that would exempt indigenous peoples whose traditional lands extend beyond national borders from immigration regulations.

Some communities have been divided by these borders, leading to the separation of families, making it difficult to participate in traditional practices, and harming cultural ties and economic opportunities, the government acknowledges.

These changes could also be visible as early as 2024, says Abram Benedict, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, a First Nation located between the United States, Ontario and Quebec. “We are committed to moving things in the right direction and we feel a great openness from Ottawa and Washington,” he emphasizes.

The grand chief mentions that his community is part of the Jay Treaty Border Alliance, an advocacy group made up of indigenous communities on both sides of the border. He believes the Trudeau government is preparing a legislative plan that will be supported by the Biden administration. What we want is free passage on both sides of the border. There are still some obstacles, but I remain confident about the future.